Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Alain Guiraudie | L'Inconnu du lac (The Stranger by the Lake)

the cost of desire
by Douglas Messerli

Alain Guiraudie (writer and director) L'Inconnu du lac (The Stranger by the Lake) / 2013

What is the cost of sexual desire? I once went home with a beautiful boy from a Greenwich Village bar, who asked if he might he piss all over me. I insisted that I was not interested. But he still managed to infect me with Gonorrhea (not my first time, sad to say).
     French director Alain Guiradie explores far deeper issues in his 2013 film L'Inconnu de lac (The Stranger by the Lake) where a desirous young man, attending a gay nude beach whose nearby woods lures men, old and young, to have sex, consensual and voyeuristic both. Basically an innocent, Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), as I thought myself to be, attends these beach outings, calmly sitting next to the mostly passive rotund and unattractive Henri (Patrick d'Assumçao), who seemingly has no interest in the cruising activities of the younger people around him, yet is gently attentive to his conversations with the handsome young Franck. Occasionally, they even take a quiet dinner together.

     Henri, evidently suffering the pains of a long-ago death of his wife, seeks out the lakeside gay retreat as a simply place of last resort, or, one might describe it as search for a world far away “from the other side,” a part of the beach sought out by heterosexual nudists who want nothing to do with the gay boys and older men on the other side.
      In fact, there is something beautiful about the relationship between Franck and Henri, as the two heat up on the beach in gentle conversation, while others sleep naked like whales in the sand or retreat into the woods. I’ve been there. It is a world of total excitement and hesitant but equally excited observation. It is a standard world of the gay gaze and sexual engagement, delightful and despicable in equal dollops.
      Into this world the innocent Franck enters, not a regular in this seemingly perverse world, but almost falling in love at first sight with a mustachioed young man—which some critics have pointed out is almost the model of 1970s porno films—whom he observes drowning his sexual companion in the lake.
      The saddest thing about this rather complex film is that Franck does not report the act, and, in fact himself falls in love with the murderer. Yes, this is a story about AIDS, in which the most knowing of gays often could not resist their own infatuations with those who they surely knew might have been causing their deaths; but the film is also Eros and Thanatos, the gentle, sometimes even desired, movement of love into death.
       Franck, fixated on the murderer, Michel (Christophe Paou), is, himself, allowing a knowingly, possible murderous repeat of the past. Somewhat like Alfred Hitchcock’s outsider woman in Strangers on a Train, who even invites her murderer into her “Tunnel of Love,” realizing that it is a dangerous adventure into which she has embarked. Guiradie’s film even more closely reminds one of Hitchcock’s Rope wherein two gay men gratuitously kill an innocent straight man just for the thrill of it.

      Michel, as the detective questioning the locals suggests, is probably more homophobic than simply interested in the thrill of the kill. Despite the graphic sex the director reveals is the tie between the two of them, even Michel suggests early on in their relationship that there will be a day in which Franck will lose interest, a day, we can only suspect, will end in his death. And there is an undertone here of a mad jealousy behind Michel’s gaze.

    Yet the fact that he will not invite Franck home and even provide him with a description of how he is employed that there is something darker than even jealousy about his actions. Is he married to a woman with a family, hating himself for his sexual “indiscretions?” Does he perhaps live with a mother or father to whom it is impossible to reveal his activities?
       I’d argue that one of the major failures of Guiradie’s film is that, in fact, we know virtually nothing about the daily inhabitants of this lakeside beach. How do they all financially support their daily treks to the lake and woods surrounding? Indeed, the director presents them only as mostly sexual predators. Only the quiet Henri and the kind Franck seem to have depth of personality.
     Yet Franck, knowing the truth, refuses to reveal it, living a lie that is as deep as the murderous intentions of his temporary lover; and Henri, suspecting the truth is murdered, presumably by Michel, for his knowledge. Michel cannot but perceive that Henri’s friend must also know what has happened.
      For the second time, the now not-so-innocent Franck realizes the horrors of the man he has chosen for a lover. And he temporarily hides within the woods to keep himself safe. Surely he cannot believe Michel’s statements as he searches for Franck: “I won’t hurt you. I need you. We can spend the night together.”
      Yet once Michel seems to have left have left and darkness has descended upon this false paradise, Franck exits his hideaway in the reeds to call out Michel’s name, a first quietly, then louder, and finally in a kind desperate shout, as if not only he has lost his love, but is totally prepared to face the consequences of being reunited.
      The film ends in near total darkness draping over the vaguely perceived shoulders of Franck. We know the ending without Guiradie having even to tell us. The allure of darkness is what that woods is all about.

Los Angeles, December 17, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (December 2019).

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